Mark Newhall CEO ESG One of America’s Best Management Consulting Firms (2nd year in a row)
Recognized by Forbes, in 2016, surprised us actually with recognizing ESG as one of America’s best consulting practices. And it was kind of a surprise to us. We didn’t apply for it, we didn’t even know it particularly existed in a myriad of Forbes lists, and so forth, that get put out. But what was really interesting about it was, you know, the way they went about identifying these companies. And it was through talking to some of the largest companies in the United States around, you know, “Who are the big firms that you use while looking for advice and support, advisory services? And then, who are those boutique firms that you really count on?” And they make their first pass through, and, apparently, we came up enough for where they said, “We want to go deeper and understand kind of who this firm is?” And they go back to the clients that we’ve worked with, and talked a lot about the value that we deliver, and how they work with us, and so forth. And then they go talk to our peers: “What are your thoughts on working with ESG, and their people, and the value that they deliver?” And I think they had roughly a dozen, or so, categories, and ours was on “Business Strategy,” and they named somewhere…I think it was around 15 or so companies. And so we’re really proud to make that list in ’16 and to make it again in the spring of ’17. So, a really great job by our people, and kind of a big deal for them to be recognized for their work.
I worked in a very small office supply retail store in high school back in the mid-’80s, and that was before Staples, and before superstores, and before the internet, and fax machines, and email, and things like that, and I just learned pretty early on, in schooling and working for this business services company, how business is operated, and how you could, as a partner then, bring value to the products and services. We sold typewriters, and early Wang word processors, Canon photocopiers, and all kinds of other printing services, and so forth. And, you know, stayed with that in high school, stayed with that after high school, became a fully commissioned outside salesperson, sales manager, and then found my way to a national company that had a smaller operation in Boston, that, shortly after I joined the company, Corporate Express, which was founded here in Colorado in ’86, they were in the process of going public. They were intending to use the proceeds from that public offering to begin acquiring small and regional office products companies. And we were basically their first foray into Boston and kind of Northern New England area, and at 25, I became, I think at the time, their youngest division president. Wasn’t of anything particularly impressive. It was a very small six-million-dollar division of what was a very fast-growing company. And they taught me, at that kind of young age, how to move in from kind of sales management to general management, and then, you know, how to go buy companies. And spent a lot of time on the deal team in the mid-90s, and went back to Boston. We bought nine companies, just over $100 million worth of revenue in about 18 months, and then the responsibility, and the action around, how do you put those nine companies together? Previous competitors, a lot of overlap with sales, product, facilities, fleets, compensation programs, all those kinds of things, and found that that was probably the most fun that I had had to that point.
And we sold the company, ’99, to a Dutch firm, and the new CEO made the rounds, he came back to me after that. He said, “You know, I’ve been all over the country, and here in Boston you’ve done a really exceptional job of creating the culture we want, deploying the systems, the processes we want, pulling these nine companies together. It’s really a model we want to repeat, and why don’t you come join my team?” And so for the next 10 years, I lived kind of on an airplane. Worldwide, the company, through that same period, completed close to 600 acquisitions, 28 countries, 40,000 people, many, many different lines of business, and really trying to create a global value proposition for, you know, business customers, and businesses out there. So, built a large internal consultancy that, you know, we were the people that were there. The day the deal closed, we were the ones that were rationalizing the distribution footprint, and putting the distribution systems, and warehouse systems, order management systems in place, sunsetting the old staff, training the workforce on new things, and when that work was done, it was, “Okay, how do we keep these competencies and take on the tough projects?” You know, early-days CRM with companies like Salesforce.com. We were one of their first enterprise customers, first people to bring it into a contact center. “How do we consolidate 30 different customer service centers in the mid-2000s? You know, not disrupt the customer experience. How do you certify the company with ISO 9001:2000 quality systems?” We did that. And then I spent a few years in Amsterdam working for our European president, eventually the chairman of the company, really driving not so much the strategy of the company, but, how do we execute and align the company worldwide to the tenants of the strategy?
So, finished up in 2008. It was quite the end of a ride, 15 years from those early days of the IPO, and roughly $40 million to $50 million in revenue to a sale to Staples at $8.5 billion, and a whole lot bigger 15 years later. And, felt really proud of the work we did to build a world-class company and something that is a big part today, still, of what Staples is all about.
ESG, I came up with that name. It was kind of a mouthful, “Execution Specialists Group,” kind of scares everybody, so we shortened it to “ESG.” But we love the question today, 10 years later, you know, “What does it mean?” And people kind of have an aha moment.
So the name has actually served as well over the years, but that’s kind of how it started. And it was about, I would say, five days into that engagement, with that first client, where that’s where I had my aha moment. And I said, you know, sitting with their executive team, looking at the challenges, very familiar, you know, P&L client distribution challenges that I had faced for many years on the operating side of the business, but then this aspiration to…you know, “But we’ve got to get after it. We’ve got way too many systems. Our customers are confused. It’s expensive. Where did we dig in?”
I realized, “There’s a business here.” The skill sets that I have and that people that had worked with me had, would potentially be really valuable.
You know, when you get down to it, a strategy isn’t much of anything without the ability to execute.
If you were to talk to your colleagues or clients, and they said that you had a particular superpower, something that you’re best at, what is it?
I think they would tell you, “You ask the questions nobody else was thinking of.” I really think that’s why people hire us. And I don’t think we’re being clever. We’re not trying to be clever, we’re not trying to trick, or anything like that because the answers make up the engagements that we enter into. We don’t have a political ax to grind. We don’t have an organizational climb feat to accomplish. We are only going to be kept around for a particular client so long as we’re delivering value. You know, it’s not unusual to be sitting in a steering committee meeting with senior executives, and other consultants, key stakeholders on a big transformation project, and for us to be in the room, and for that senior sponsor to add a tough time in a project to say, “Well, Mark Newhall will tell ya.” I mean, you know, what he means by that isn’t, “Mark’s the guru.” It’s…you know, “They’re here so we don’t make the mistakes they’ve seen with others.” And we get there not through telling them what to do, but through challenging, “Well, why do you think that? What have you looked at? What other alternatives have you considered? Have you talked to these other functions? Have you pressure-tested assumptions, and so forth?” And there are a million political reasons people don’t ask those questions, but I think if we do a good job on our credibility on the front-end, and not being punitive, but being collaborative, that we are in the right to ask tougher questions, and people come to respect the answers. And I think that you know, our tagline is, and has been for a long time, it’s kind of an informal, “Making strategy happen.”
The best compliment I ever got from the client was the CFO of Staples. He said, “You know, you guys looked scary in the beginning, small firm, bit of a larger fee than we typically would pay a smaller firm, but you’ve really got something here with this ‘Make strategy happen’ thing because it was evasive and elusive to us before. We were very dialed into, ‘What should we do?’ And through our work with you, we actually got it done.” And I think about that engagement, we just…we asked a million questions about, ‘What were they after?’ And we certified, I think, and just were so specific about what success needed to look like, then we could get to it.
website / Esgimpact.com
LinkedIn / https://www.linkedin.com/in/marknewhall/
Forbes Article / Link